Early in Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino, we meet Aimé Guibert, a white-haired vintner in the south of France who surveys his calling with the cynical resign of a horse-and-buggy driver in 1910. ”Wine is dead,” he says, his features drooping into a scowl of sadness. A little later, we meet the killers of wine — that is, if you agree with Guibert’s elegy. They are Robert Mondavi, who starting in 1966 probably did more than anyone to plant Napa Valley on the world-vintage map, and his eldest son, Michael. In Mondovino, winemakers from half a dozen countries are filmed with a handheld camera that ambles its way through their vineyards and homes, but Nossiter poses the Mondavis in a single still frame, so that they look as sinister as the Corleones. The film seems to be saying: These are the capitalist oligarchs of the New Wine Order.
As we learn, the Mondavis tried — and failed — to take over a vineyard in Aniane, the only village in France with a Communist mayor. (Guibert, who lives there, helped to lead the fight against them.) It was a Pyrrhic victory for the old ways, though. Mondovino, a look at the changing world of wine and what it says about all of us, is a searching meditation on love, flavor, money, tradition, and globalization. We meet a number of European winemakers, disciples of the mysteries of old-oak barrels and terroir, and several of the new oligarchs as well, like Michel Rolland, a jaunty wine consultant who hops all over the globe doling out expensive tips on the science of micro-oxygenation.
If Mondovino were simply a tale of ancient artisans versus the corporation, it might have been a reductive movie. But Nossiter, who made the stirring lost-souls-in-love drama Sunday (1997), finds ripples of subtlety within his design. We meet the fabled critic Robert Parker, whose reviews in the Wine Advocate determine prices around the world. Is he the Pied Piper of globalized taste, shoring up American dominance, or is he right about the sensations he champions? The highest praise I can give to Mondovino is that it makes you want to sample every vintage it shows you and find out the answer yourself.